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Tips for an effective executive summary (Ask Dr. Wobs)

Graphic: Calvin & Hobbes

Executive summaries are crucial for long documents. Keep them spicy and write them early, late, and often.

Dear Dr. Wobs:

I suspect Executive Summaries became a thing mainly to compensate for bad writing. Do you prefer to write the Summary first, or after writing the rest of the document? And if the Executive Summary is good, can’t it generally stand in for everything which follows?

Lisa Woods

Executive summaries arose, not because of poor writing, but because of impatient readers. For a document of 2,500 words or more, an opening summary is essential, whether its an executive summary for a report or an abstract for a paper. These opening summaries serve two purposes:

  1. They help readers determine if the rest of the document is worth their reading time.
  2. For readers who don’t have the time to read the whole document, they provide the findings quickly.

For these reasons, the summary is equal in importance to the remainder of the document. Don’t treat it as an afterthought.

Executive summaries are like movie trailers

Most people write summaries poorly. They read each section in their finished document and summarize it blandly. Using this method, a summary for this blog post would read like this:

Executive summaries are important for impatient readers. Don’t write them blandly. Write them both before and after you’ve written the document.

Snore. I’ve taken all the content, put it in a blender, and made a beige puree. It fails on both goals of a summary: it communicates nothing and it promotes the rest of the document purely.

Instead, think of your summary as you would a movie trailer: it should highlight the most fascinating things in the document and promise more. What you can leave out is the proof — summaries can contain unsupported statements with the proof in the body of the document. What you must include is the story at the center of the document. Use connective words like “as a result” to turn the sentences in the summary into a story. Using this method, a summary for this blog post could be:

Executive summaries are crucial: they tell impatient people whether it makes sense to read the rest of a document. Like a movie trailer, they hit the highlights of a document and promise more. For the best summaries, create a draft before you write the document, and revise it again afterwards. That way you’ll think about the summary twice as much as the rest of the text.

Every document has sexy stuff — cool conclusions, fascinating statistics, illuminating metaphors, incisive examples. That’s what belongs in the summary.

But keep it short: a few paragraphs for a document of 2500 words, or a page or so for a longer document. Keeping the summary to one page of highlights maximizes the chance that people will actually read it. Even a 3-hour movie has a one-minute trailer.

When to write an executive summary

Most people write the summary hurriedly, at the end of their draft as the deadline looms. This is a terrible idea for such an important element of your document.

Instead, here’s a trick to make your executive summary better: rewrite it twice as much as everything else in your document.

Before you start writing a document, write the summary. It’s going to be rough, poorly ordered, and fragmentary, because the document doesn’t exist yet, but even so, it will set the stage for what’s you’re about to write in the document.

Then, when the draft is done, go back and rewrite the summary. Now that you know what you’re actually saying (and have written some of those highlights), you’re in a much better position to rewrite it.

When you get the reviewers’ comments and are ready to write the next draft, rewrite the summary first. And then rewrite it again when the draft is complete.

This method ensures that the summary gets the attention it deserves, with twice as many drafts as the rest of the document.

Are summaries all we need?

As Lisa asked, if the summary is so good, who needs the rest of the document? We all do.

Summaries lack proof — that’s in the rest of the document.

Summaries lack nuance. The rest of the document explains the complexity.

Summaries can hold three detailed examples or statistics when the summary has only one sentence. These will make your argument much more believable. And they hit points that may be of intense interest to a subgroup of readers.

If you’ve written the summary and the rest of the document seems unnecessary, then you’ve made one of two mistakes. It’s possible that rest of the document is unnecessary, or at least too long. Edit it down. Or alternatively, you may have written an overlong multi-page summary. Cut the summary down to one page, and leave the extra stuff in the body of the document.

As a thank-you for her question, I sent Lisa a prerelease copy of Writing Without Bullshit. Please Ask Dr. Wobs your question. If I pick it, I’ll send you a copy, too.

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